Prepuce, the loose sheath surrounding the glans of the flaccid penis or clitoris.

The word first appears as praeputium in the Latin of ancient Rome; the derivation of praeputium is a matter of debate, possibly originating from the Latin prae (before) and the Greek posthe (penis). Or, more interestingly, it may be related the the Latin puteo ("I stink") in reference to the noisome accumulation of smegma, the sebaceous secretion that would collect under the prepuce of a habitually underwashed Roman male (notwithstanding the Roman baths, which not did not become an integral part of Romanic culture until the 2nd century BC, a full 300 years into the Roman Republic).

It has also been suggested that prepuce stems from praeputare ("to cut away", related to amputaere). However, the Romans used praeputium long before they became aware of the Jewish rite of circumcision.

The prepuce is referred to as the foreskin in males and the clitoral hood in females (although this latter term is not officially recognized by the Terminologia Anatomica). Its superior surface is skin and its inner surface is a mucosa; is this sense its organization is not unlike that of an eyelid.

During sexual excitement the prepuce retracts, exposing the glans. Given its sexual sensitivity, it can play role the tactile stimulation associated with sexual pleasure.

In a sexually mature man, the surface area of the intact prepuce averages about around 100 square centimeters, about that of a 3x5 index card.
Michelangelo's David in the Accademia Gallery, Florence, Italy.
Photo by Ussaro Etneo



Malleolus, Latin for little hammer. Vesalius, in the 16th century, was the first to use the term for the rounded, bony processes on the distal fibula (the lateral malleolus) and tibia (the medial malleolus), often referred to as the "ankle bones" in casual conversation.

That Vaselius called these relatively large processes "little hammers" is a bit ironic, considering that one of the smallest bones in the body, the malleus of the middle ear, was given the non-diminutive Latin name for hammer (probably named by the Italian anatomist Alessandro Achillini, 1463-1512).
See malleus for a discussion of Vaselius's inspiration for coining the term malleolus.

30% of ankle fractures involve the malleoli, usually the lateral.



Orbit, as in eye-socket, comes from the Latin orbita, a rut or wheel-track, which in turn comes from orbis, circular as a wheel or disc. Thus is it not difficult to see how orbita became associated with revolving or rotating. The eye-socket came to be called the orbit in reference to the rotational movements of the eyeball within.

The first use of orbita in an anatomical sense came from a Latin translation of the Arabic texts of Abu Ali Sina (Avicenna), the 11th century Persian anatomist, by the 12th century Italian scholar Gerard of Cremona.


Glenoid, from the the Greek glene, socket, eyeball, or mirror, and eidus, shape.

The etymology of glenoid, as in the glenoid cavity of the scapula, is murky at best. The earliest recorded use of glene, by Homer around the 7th century BC, was for mirror. By a few hundred years later, perhaps because of the mirror-like reflections that can be seen in the pupil, glene took on the meaning of eyeball (or, as some maintain, just the pupil). Still later, the meaning shifted to socket, perhaps because of the association of the eyeball with the orbit, or eye socket, of the skull.

But why is the socket on the scapula called the glenoid cavity? It has been suggested that the inspiration for this usage was the mirror-like glistening of the relatively flat articular cartilage on surface of the cavity, harking back to the original use of glene for mirror, which, along with its other meaning of socket, provided a term with definitions doubly appropriate to the structure. The only problem with this convenient story is a complete lack of evidence in its favor, but no better explanation has been offered.

Galen, in the second century AD, was the first to employ the word for the scapular structure, but he kept the logic for the coinage to himself.

Anatomically unrelated: The name of the protozoan euglena comes from eu- (true) and, for some reason, glena (mirror, eyeball, pupil, socket -- take your pick)


Glomerulus, the spherical capillary tuft within the kidney, is the diminutive form of the Latin word for glomus, something wound into a ball, usually used in reference to yarn. These "little balls of yarn", of which there are about a million in a kidney with each serving a nephron, were discovered in 1666 by the preeminent Italian anatomist, Marcello Malpighi.

Malpighi also was the first to describe capillaries. His accurate observations of microscopic structure were amazing accomplishments given the primitive state of microscopy at the time.

Glomeruli were known as Malpighian bodies until 1788, when the term glomerulus was introduced by the Russian anatomist Alexander Schumlansky.

Non-anatomical words coming from glomus include conglomerate and agglomerate.

Marcello Malpighi (1628-1694)


Due to the craziness surrounding the wildfires in San Diego County, this blog is on temporary hiatus. Once the smoke clears, the embers stop blowing (and I can return to my house!) it will be back.


Endocrine, from the Greek endon, within, and krinein, to separate.

Friedrich Henle first recognised the presence of ductless glands in 1841, but "endocrine" was not used to describe these structures until the French physiologist Gustave-Edouard Laguesse coined the term in 1893.

Laguesse also named the islets of Langerhans, the pancreatic endocrine tissue that is the source of insulin and glucagon, among other hormones. They were so-called in honor of Paul Langerhans,
the German who first described islet anatomy in 1869 (but did not suggest any functions).

The word hormone was coined in 1905 by British physiologist Ernest Starling (from the Greek word for “excite", hormao.)

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Gustave-Edouard Laguesse



Intestines, from the Latin intestina, guts, which is from intus, within. The singular form, intestinus, means internal, domestic, or civil, and was a term used in governmental discourse by the ancient Romans.

The word clandestine (concealed, working in secret) comes from intestinus plus clam, Latin for secret

Intestina, in the anatomical sense, first appeared in a work by the great Roman anatomist Celsus in the first century B.C. (his book, De Medicina, was one of the first medical texts to be printed following the invention of the printing press 1500 years later).

Celsus also was the first to employ acetabulum and patella, among many other words of anatomy.

Aurelius Cornelius Celsus 53 B.C. - 7 A.D


Alimentary is an adjective that comes from the the Latin word for food, alimentum. The alimentary canal, also known as the digestive tract, is a tube extending from mouth to anus that's about 20 feet long (and typically longer in cadavers because of a loss of smooth muscle tone that occurs after death)

The Terminologia Anatomica, with futility, prefers alimentary system instead of digestive system.

The Indo-European root of alimentum is al, "to grow", giving rise to the Latin alere, "to nuture", from which developed alma mater (nourishing mother), alumnus (one who has been nourished), alimony (money for nourishment), and adult (one who has grown up thanks to nourishment; the "ul" in adult is derived from "al").


Pectoral, from the Latin pectus, breast. It's been suggested that pectus in turn comes from the Latin word for comb, pecten, because the ribs look like the teeth of a comb.

Pecten is the source of pectineus, a muscle originating from the pubic bone, either because the muscle's parallel fascicles resemble a comb or because pecten was once the name of the pubic bone. (Why the pubic bone should call to mind a comb is anybody's guess: one suggestion is that pubic hair was somehow reminiscent of wispy tufts of hair left on a comb.)

The comb-like parallel ridges of myocardial tissue seen within the right atrium and both auricles of the heart is called the pectinate muscle.


Aorta has an uncertain derivation. The first recorded mention of the word was by Hippocrates in the 5th century BC who used it to describe the trachea and its branches. Given the windpipe’s function, the term may have come from combination of the Greek aer (air) and tepeo (to hold).

Though he also subscribed to the Greek convention that arteries carried air, Aristotle, in the 4th century BC, was the first to apply the word to the vessel it is associated with today, inspired perhaps by a fancied resemblance to the arched sheath of an aorta, a large Greek knife with a curved handle.

Another candidate for Aristotle’s inspiration: aortemei, a Greek word meaning "suspend" (from aorter, a Grecian shoulder strap that things were hung from). Given all the blood vessels that branch to the viscera from the aorta, one can see how it may resemble a strap of sorts suspending the heart, kidney, stomach, and intestines.

Or it could it could be all of these; surely Aristotle loved puns just as much as the next guy.


Ischium comes from iskhion, the Greek word for the socket which receives the head of the femur (now called the acetabulum). The word was sometimes used simply for the hip joint.

Galen, in the second century A.D., divided the hip bone (os coxa) into the three bones we know today: the ilium, pubis, and the iskhion, which was later Latinized to ischium. These three bones fuse into the single hip bone during puberty.

The ischium receives the weight of the body when we are sitting: Though "we sit on the ish” is a mnemonic, the proper pronunciation is "ISS-kee-um" in honor of its Greek forebearer iskhion.

The unfused ischium of a two-year-old (bottom right).
Also seen are the pubis (bottom left) and ilium.


Collagen comes from the Greek kolla (glue) and gennao (I produce). A "producer of glue" is quite an apt characterization of collagen, at least metaphorically, as this most ubiquitous of intercellular structural proteins plays a fundamental role in holding the body together. However, the term was coined (sometime in the mid 1800's) not because of its role in connective tissues, but because it is the main ingredient of glues formed from the boiling of animal skin, tendons, and ligaments. (The oldest such glues yet discovered, in various artifacts found near the Dead Sea, date to 6200 BC.)

The word collage, meaning an artistic collection of images, printed matter, and other substances glued to a board, also comes from kolla.


Labrum comes directly from a word Latin for lip, labrum. The two ball-and-socket joints, the hip and the shoulder, each have a labrum: The glenoid labrum surrounds of the rim of the glenoid cavity in the shoulder and the acetabulular labrum surrounds the rim of the acetabulum in the hip. Both labia are composed of fibrocartilage and serve to deepen the sockets of their respective joints thus providing additional stability. The glenoid labrum plays the more important role of the two given the shallow form of the glenoid cavity as compared to the acetabulum.

Glenoid labrum tears are common athletic injuries , especially those sports involving overhand motions such as baseball and tennis.

Labium, directly from Latin word for the curved edge of a cup, labium, is used exclusively for the labium majus and labium minus (plural labia majora and labia minora) of the vulva.

The labrum, here labeled as the glenoid ligament. From Grey's Anatomy, 1909, via Wikipedia.com


Jugular comes from jugulum, a Latin word with at least three different meanings: the clavicle, the hollow in the neck just above the sternum, or the neck generally. Some dictionaries define the term as "relating to the throat", but "throat" in this context is in colloquial sense of "neck" as opposed to the anatomical throat, or pharynx, most of which is in the head behind the oral and nasal cavities.

The word comes from jugum, Latin for yoke, presumably because yokes are carried on the neck. Yoke is derived from jugum as well.

The jugular notch is the depression on the superior aspect of the manubrium at the hollow of the neck; it is also called the suprasternal notch. There are two other sets of jugular notches in the skeletal system, one on the temporal bones and the other on the occipital bone; together they form each half of the right and left jugular foramina of the skull, the point of origin of the jugular veins of the neck.

Using a yoke.
Modified from www.woodsurgeon.com


Nerve can be traced back all the way to the Sanskrit nauree, "string", circa 1000 BC, which gave rise to the Greek neuron, a term originally used by Hippocrates in the 5th century BC for various structures of a white, fibrous appearance, including tendons and ligaments ("sinews") as well as nerves; the word also was used for bowstring.

From neuron comes aponeurosis, first used by the Greeks for any broad, white, membrane-like tendon (apo is Greek for "derived from") and in use today for the same purpose. Examples include the epicranial aponeurosis and plantar aponeurosis.

In the 4th century BC, Aristotle restricted the use of neuron to the those structures we call nerves today. This was around the time the Greeks began to differentiate between the functions of nerves and sinews (they had come to realize that nerves were involved with muscle control, for example).

In one of the stranger quirks of anatomical etymology, Galen, in the 2nd century, came up with the word neuron, not from the Greek neuron, but from the Latin verb neuein, "to nod"; as he wrote: "nerves cause the limbs to nod and the joints to bend". Of course, he could have been simply enjoying a pun as well. However, it was the Greek neuron that gave way to the Latin nervus, which begat the French nerf, and finally the English "nerve".

Phrases such as "straining one's nerves" or "showing a lot of nerve" go back to the sinew notion of the word: strength, and from strength, courage.

Neuron, in the sense of a nerve cell, was coined in 1891 by the German anatomist Wilhelm Waldeyer, who first proposed the idea that the fundamental structure of nervous tissue was not that of a continuous web but rather discrete cellular units.

"Neuron" by Anna Vieth


Patella, directly from the Latin patella, a small dish or saucer. It is the diminutive of patera (from which we get pan). You'd think its anatomical namesake, the sesamoid bone of the quadriceps tendon also known as the kneecap, would thus shaped like a dish, but it is more triangular than round and has no concave surface. The term was introduced in its anatomical sense by Aurelius Celsus in the first century A.D.

True to its roots, an archaic name for the patella is kneepan.

A Roman patella. From the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, by Sir William Smith, 1876
Celsus was a veritable mint of anatomical terminology coining, or at least bringing to light, abdomen, anus, cartilage, hernia, humerus, radius, scrotum, tibia, tonsil, uterus, and vertebrae, among others (see the classic text Origin of Anatomical Terms by Henry Alan Skinner for additional information). Interestingly, Celsus was not an anatomist or even a physician but a writer who produced a compilation of Greek and Roman medical texts that became one of the most influential medical books ever written. It had been lost to history until its rediscovery in 1443 in Milan, Italy, and was part of a larger encyclopedia of general knowledge he wrote that appears gone for good.


Hamstrings. Hamm is an Anglo-Saxon (i.e. Old English) word for the back of the thigh, which may be derived from an Old Teutonic word, ham, "crooked", that referred initially to the bend at the knee and later just the popliteal space behind the knee. The "strings" are the long, thin tendons of the muscles of the posterior thigh, specifically the semitendinosus and semimembranosus medially, and the lateral biceps femoris. The tendons can be easily felt on either side of the popliteal fossa (the "knee pit").

The "hamstrings" specifically refer to the tendons of the posterior thigh muscles but the practical usage of the word is in reference to the muscles as well.

The ham of the dinner table is typically the semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris of the pig, but anterior thigh and gluteal muscles may be present as well.


Liver, from the Anglo-Saxon word for liver, lifer. It seems logical that the etymology of the word is somehow related to "life" but no one knows for certain. It is interesting to note that the German word for liver is die Leber, and the German verb leben is "to live".

Hepar, Greek for liver, is the source of the combining form seen in words such as hepatic, hepatitis, and heparin (which was first isolated from the liver cells of dogs).

The Latin word for liver, jecur, doesn't show up anywhere in anatomy or medicine, or in any of the Romance languages. Strangely, the Spanish, French, and Italian words for liver (higato, foie, and fegato respectively) all stem from the Latin word ficatum, "stuffed with figs", whose link with the liver is through an ancient Roman dinner specialty: jecur ficatum: liver and figs.

It was long believed that the liver was source of the body's blood and lymph; when this was shown not to be true, the organ lost favor amongst anatomists and physiologists. Its stature was revived in the 19th century by the father of homeostatic theory, the French physiologist Claude Bernard, who recognized many of the organs vital functions; indeed we now know of at least 50 ways, as Paul Simon almost sang, to love your liver.

Cricoid comes from the Greek krikos (finger-ring) and -oedes (shape). The term was coined by the Romans in the first century.

  • It is almost universally stated that the cricoid cartilage, the most inferior component of the larynx, is so-named because of it's similarity to a signet ring (a ring with an engraved seal). However, the cartilage more closely resembles, and is more likely named after, the thumb-ring of an archer. Indeed, Vesalius included a drawing of such a ring when describing the cricoid in his Fabrica

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A Roman signet ring

Posterior view of the cricoid cartilage

Drawing of a Turkish archer's thumb ring
Andreas Vesalius' De Humani Corporis Fabrica, 1543

An ancient Roman archer's thumb ring